When we discuss leopards, a picture of alpine forests comes to our mind. We have always believed that leopards live in Kashmir’s deodar, fir and kail jungles. These wild cats are known for their shy and secretive behavior. They mostly live a solitary life, are nocturnal, and spend their nights hunting, instead of sleeping. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, their behavior has changed. Leopards, which in the past would be found in the mountains and demarcated forest areas of Kashmir, are now not only seen in villages outside the forests but are found roaming in urban habitations also. Leopards are seen in Srinagar’s outskirts, especially the uptown area as well.
Kashmir’s leopards would hardly eat dogs several decades back but now they attack them and eat them as well. The leopards are coming down to villages, human habitations and towns as there has been massive deforestation, construction of roads and laying of huge transmission lines in the forest areas. Their natural habitat has been encroached upon, especially in Pir Panjaal mountains, under the garb of development and now they have infiltrated into our habitations creating a new habitat for themselves. For the last 10 years, leopards were frequently seen around Srinagar International Airport, located in Budgam district. Leopard attacks increased in other areas of Budgam. Domestic animals (cattle and sheep) and children have been their victims.
In May 2014, at least 23 sheep were killed and a dozen injured in Bagh e Buchroo village of Budgam district. This village is located merely 1 kms away from Srinagar airport runway. The attack was carried out by three leopards on a flock of sheep when they were to leave for the upper reaches of Budgam. The sheep were resting in a village community land when these wild cats attacked them in the dead of night. Nobody even believed that the attacking leopards had made local Karewa Damodar near Srinagar airport their new abode. After that attack, the leopards kept killing dogs, cattle and other animals around the airport area especially in Naroo , Gudsathoo, Rangreth, Humhama areas. A mature leopard was seen roaming in Bagh e Mehtab area of Srinagar for 3 days this winter. On the intervening night of May 17 and 18 this year, ten sheep were killed in a leopard attack in Khaipora village of Khansahib tehsil of Budgam. The door of a cattle shed was broken into, nine sheep were killed inside and one was taken away.
Recent attack at Ompora
Recently a four-year-old girl, Adha Skakeel, was mauled by a leopard near Ompora housing colony in Budgam. She was playing on the lawns of her house on the evening of June 5th this year when a leopard jumped from the boundary wall and snatched her away. A massive search operation was launched. After more than an hour, some local residents found the girl’s necklace and slippers in the nearby forest. The next day, her mutilated body was found. After this incident, locals protested against the authorities, especially the wildlife department. After a few days of Ompora incident two leopards were caught in two villages of Budgam—Loolipora Chadoora and Khodpora Khansahib. In addition, some more leopards were spotted at two different places–Watkaloo Charar-i-Sharief and Hufroo Budgam. Budgam district, especially the airport area and surrounding Karewas, have become a hotspot of leopards in the last 10 years. The wildlife officials claimed that the leopard that mauled Adha to death was captured alive on June 15th after 11 days of a massive manhunt. The animal was trapped by the wildlife department in Budgam town near the residence of the Deputy Commissioner which is just two kilometers away from where Adha became a victim. As per data of the department of wildlife, 224 people were killed and 2,829 injured between 2006 to March 2021 by wild animals (leopards and bears) in Kashmir Valley.
The Srinagar airport area is an elevated place locally called Karewa or Wodder. Until the early 1990s, the Karewa land around the airport was mostly barren. Except for almond trees, there was no other vegetation around this vast area of around 50 square kilometers. In the early 1990s, the government started massive plantations in some villages located near the airport, particularly in Wathoora, Kralpora, Rangreth, Gogo and other areas. The plantation has become so thick that the entire Karewa Damodar area around Srinagar airport looks like a forest. As there is less movement of people here due to the security cover around the area, leopards have found a new habitat here and attack villages and housing colonies.
A map prepared by the wildlife department shows leopard hotspots within 10 square kilometres from the centre of Srinagar airport. These leopards are well adapted to urban and semi-urban human spaces. Regional Wildlife Warden Rashid Naqash says that in natural landscapes or habitats, leopards assume a territory of 30-40 square kilometers in order to ensure the availability of enough prey and females for mating. This keeps a natural check on the population and the density of animals per square kilometre is quite low. One animal per 5-10 square kilometers is an ideal number in such places but in human spaces, this territory is too small to attain adequate prey base cover and females to mate. Therefore, breeding doesn’t remain in check. “In some villages in Budgam or areas near Srinagar airport, the density of leopards is one per square kilometre, which is very high”, he added.
For laying the 440 double circuit Jallandhar-Samba Amargrah transmission line in 2017-18, more than 45,000 trees were axed in the Pir Panjaal forests. This huge transmission line passes through 340 square km of the Herpora wildlife reserve in Shopian district. This has disturbed the local wildlife, including the Himalayan brown bear and black bear, musk deer, leopard, Tibetan wolf, Himalayan palm civet and the critically endangered Pir Panjal Markhor. The massive deforestation during construction of Mughal road is also responsible for the migration of leopards from higher altitudes to low lying areas in Shopian , Pulwama and Budgam. Only a few days back a leopard was spotted in Tangnad karewa of Chadoora. Recently 35 sheep were mauled to death in Kunzer Tangmarg. Unless the Govt does not plan a massive afforestation programme in degraded forest land and puts a moratorium on mega construction projects in forest areas the wild animals will keep coming down to human habitations.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow & Chairman J&K RTI Movement. He is also Anant Fellow for Climate Action.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.